One of my favorite buildings in Washington, DC, is The Cathedral Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul in the City and Diocese of Washington, or the Washington National Cathedral. The Cathedral is the second-largest Church building in the United States. In New York City, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine is the largest. The Cathedral is also the third largest building in the City of Washington.
Although it is the Cathedral Church of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, DC, by Congressional Charter, it is a house of worship for all people.
It is an imposing structure. Construction began on September 29, 1907, with the laying of the cornerstone after a ceremony attended by President Theodore Roosevelt. Construction ended in 1990 at a ceremony attended by Present George HW Bush. If you have not done the math, that is 83 years. We replaced the floor in the first Church I served in, which took two weeks, and I thought that was a long time.
I have visited the Cathedral several times, and two of those visits stand out in my mind. The first was when I was able to step into the Canterbury Pulpit. The Pulpit stands six steps above the congregation and is an imposing carved stone structure. Standing in the pulpit, you get a sense of history and can feel the spirit and energy of those who have stood there before you.
But the most memorable occasion for the consecration of my friend Joe as bishop. During the consecration, I was honored to serve with him at the High Altar. It was an amazing and spirit-filled day that I think I will remember for my entire life.
Cathedral Churches are important places in the lives of people. Yesterday, we witnessed the Coronation of the King of the United Kingdom, an event that has not occurred for 70 years. Westminster Abbey, The Cathedral Church in London, hosted this event. The Abbey has been the place of Coronations for at least 1,000 years, so it’s been around a long time.
Like cathedrals, the coronation ceremony blends the sacred and the secular. The King cannot be legitimized until he is anointed. It is that anointing, and not the crowning, that makes him a King. And notice that the crown is not placed on the sovereign’s head by some government functionary. Instead, the crown is placed on the King’s head by the Archbishop of Canterbury after a prayer is said over that very same crown. Of all the oaths sworn by the new King, the most poignant is the one when he swore to protect the faith of the Church and the faith of his subjects.
But why all this talk about the cathedrals and kings, after all? We are Americans; we have thrown all of that off. Our denomination doesn’t have cathedrals or anything close to them, but we do have sacred space.
One common thread in all cathedrals is stones. Stones make up the construction of the walls of most cathedrals. From those ancient buildings in Europe to that one in Washington, DC, one stone was placed upon another stone until the building was complete.
Each stone is handled by a skilled craftsman and fitted perfectly into place. No two stones are alike; that is why it took 83 years to build. Yesterday, after the Coronation, I continued working on my Cathedral, which I hope does not take 83 years to finish.
Yesterday, I was closing in a few walls that we had to open to fit the plumbing in. As anyone who has worked on old structures knows, nothing is straight or plumb; everything seems to be a little off. As is fitting for the cottage, I am closing in the walls with wood. In new construction, one would cut a bunch of pieces all the same length, and off you go. In an old structure, each piece must be measured, cut, and sometimes recut to get it to fit. Sometimes, I would cut a piece twice, and it was still too short.
Unlike wood, stones do not burn or rot. If the foundation of a stone structure is done correctly, that structure should remain standing for thousands of years. Another Cathedral, Notre Dame in Paris, is a good example. We all witnessed the devastating fire a few years ago that destroyed that beautiful place. When the fire was out, the stones remained somewhat weakened because the structure holding them together was gone, but they stood there in defiance of the trauma that the fire caused. Stone lasts a long time.
In today’s reading from the First Letter of Peter, we hear a lot about stones. The writer of the Letter refers to Jesus as “a living stone.” The author later quotes Jesus himself when he mentions, “the stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.”
One thing I should have mentioned was rejection in the building process. Not all stones are acceptable for building in their present state; most, if not all, need to be worked, especially the cornerstone. The foundation is the most crucial part of any building project, whether a cathedral or an outhouse. Get it wrong, and everything will be wrong. But get it right, and you have a masterpiece. And the cornerstone, the first stone laid, is the most important, for all others are placed of that stone.
But Peter is not writing about building; Peter is writing about faith, your faith, and my faith and how it should be built.
We need to begin with a solid foundation. Usually, this starts when we are children, but not always. However, what we learn as children needs to be updated. Children think in concrete terms; they do not understand allegory and nuance, so we tell them stories that they can understand. Two people in a garden eating fruit. A boat filled with animals and a few people, etc. But as we get older and understand more, how we understand those things needs to change. But a solid foundation is essential.
What we put on top of that foundation is also essential. We need to use the best materials and take our time assembling them. If you use junk, junk will be produced, and you will spend many hours fixing things. If we take time, we will build it right the first time. And, like any old structure, our faith needs renovation and sprucing up occasionally. Maybe we have outgrown our faith or need to make more room. So, we renovate, remove walls, and fix broken things. Just because something worked for you years ago does not mean it works today. It is okay to undertake a renovation.
Here we sit inside a building only partially made of stone. Those who came before us worked hard to build this place of worship that they have left in our care. But this building is not the Church, something COVID reminded us. Although I appreciate the simple beauty of this place and the magnificence of Cathedrals, they are not the Church either, and if they were to all crumble tomorrow, the Church would continue because we are living stones.
On Easter night, the Presbyterian Church in Cambridge burned and cannot be used. However, the congregation did not disperse; they found alternative ways to worship. When Communism rolled across Eastern Europe and destroyed most, if not all, churches, faith did not disappear as they had hoped it would. Faith in Eastern Europe went underground and became stronger, and when the Church emerged after Communism fell, it was stronger because the people were the stones, and they rebuilt.
But Peter also cautions us in his Letter, for he says that sometimes, stones cause others to stumble, so we can either be a path of safety or a path that makes others stumble; I hope we are working towards being a path of safety.
Just like the construction of the Washington National Cathedral, our faith can take a lifetime to build. We have to sort through many different stones to find the ones that fit together perfectly. We have to move things around and renovate from time to time. But, just like we need to change out the avocado bathroom fixtures, we need to update our faith, and we cannot be afraid to do just that. Amen.